Guest Column: A Modest Proposal

I did not want to ask this around the holidays and depress anyone, but are Christmas and New Year’s unconstitutional?

The question arises because of appeals of the federal court decision saying the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates church-state separation. A schoolroom, the court said, can easily be a coercive place, where children, even if they are told they have the freedom to abstain, may feel a pressure to conform and hence lose some of their freedom.

But is this peculiar to school? Or are there indeed many other times when Americans must submit to an establishment of government and religion? The father who brought suit against the pledge has said he is targeting not just the phrase “under God” but also the currency’s “In God we trust.” Admittedly, no one makes us stand in attention, cross our heart, and use the currency. But there is no other currency to use. Americans are thus forced to use money with a religious slogan. We are also forced, in other ways, to follow religious custom—for example, through laws that close businesses on Sundays because of the beliefs of the Christian sect.

A few national holidays are even worse. While not a Christian feast, Thanksgiving, for one example, was proclaimed a holiday by Lincoln in gratitude for the preservation of the Union, alas, in his original decree, to someone he called “the Almighty.” Thanksgiving also honors the Pilgrims, a group of (to my way of thinking) un-American religious zealots.

If Thanksgiving is bad, the Christmas we just observed is even worse. Just think of the contradiction here: How can “Christ-mas” be a national holiday, unless it involves some special recognition of the “Christ-ian” sect? True, these days it has become more a commercial than a religious holiday. Nevertheless, it honors the birth of yet another religious zealot. Even if Santa has emerged as his coequal around holiday time, that jolly old figure is also tainted by his origins as “Saint” Nicholas and his gift-giving charity.

Some tenderhearted folks may say Christmas is just a “traditional holiday” But that does not erase its danger, and you cannot be too careful about such things. One false step, and soon we could all wind up in a theocratic Ayatollah-ville right here in America. The Founders wanted to sever us absolutely from the past. The establishment of religion was part of that past; they wanted none of it. It must, therefore, have been an oversight on their part to allow our government to make Christmas a national holiday, when, astonishingly, the government itself closes for business.

New Year’s presents a different problem. True, the holiday itself is not religious. But marking New Year as we do continues a religious tradition nonetheless. Why will we designate the next New Year “2004”? This is tainted dating. Even if we have stopped using phrasing such as “A.D.” and use the new “C.E.” (for the “common era,” with the old “B.C.” replaced by “B.C.E.”), any such dating privileges Christianity. Why not use Chinese years? Islamic?

Or why not, as they did in the French revolution, sever past and present by reducing time to American history? The French made 1789 “Year One.” In American time, 1787 should have been renamed Year One.

The Constitution, while without overt references to “God,” does conclude (before the signatures) with “done in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.” But clearly the phrase “Our Lord” and use of the date as 1787 violate the Constitution—another oversight by the Founders that we should amend now. To force citizens to use 2003 today, on checks, contracts, and other legal papers, is to abridge their freedom by making them acquiesce in a special recognition of Christianity.

When the Founders warned against establishing religion, they were not afraid of persecution of the kind common throughout 18th-century Europe. They were not concerned with the Inquisition, with burning heretics, with autos-da-fe, with the thumbscrew and the rack. Their minds were not even on the lesser evils still common in relatively free countries like England, such as the exclusion of minority believers (Jews, Catholics, and all other non-High Church Anglicans) from positions in the government and the military. They were not concerned with such concrete and in some cases terrifying violation of human and political rights. No, no, no. None of this bugged them. What they were really worried about was semantics.

True, we cannot purge our entire vocabulary. For example, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” This phrasing suggests Jefferson based his view of human rights on some sort of wacky idea of mutual human “creaturehood,” and this refuted royalist theories of the “divine right of kings.” Alas, we can’t rewrite the Declaration, but we ought to censor what it so carelessly implies. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, America is a pure creation, not a democratic version of the older civilizations of Europe. We must never imply, as Jefferson did, that religion could ever have played a role in shaping American values.

Purging national holidays of religious reference and redoing the calendar are constitutional necessities. As with freedom of speech or the press, separation of church and state was meant by the Founders to be taken in absolute terms. There is no shadow in the transparent clarity of what the First Amendment means, no qualification or equivocation, no middle ground in interpretation, and no compromise possible. Greetings from the year 216.


  • Tom O'Brien

    Tom O'Brien was a writer and editor at Heldref Publications in Washington, D.C. He passed away on February 28, 2007.

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